Lady Warsi, the senior Foreign Office minister, has resigned from the government in protest at its policy on Gaza, describing it as “morally indefensible”.
Warsi announced her departure on Twitter on Tuesday, saying: “With deep regret I have this morning written to the Prime Minister & tendered my resignation. I can no longer support Govt policy on #Gaza.”
In her resignation letter, Warsi said the government’s “approach and language during the current crisis in Gaza is morally indefensible, is not in Britain’s national interest and will have a long term detrimental impact on our reputation internationally and domestically”.
She said the UK’s stance was “not consistent with the rule of law and our long support for international justice”, adding: “The British government can only play a constructive role in solving the Middle East crisis if it is an honest broker and at the moment I do not think it is.”
The chancellor, George Osborne, hit back immediately ,saying her decision was unnecessary and insisting that ministers were committed to working to secure peace in the region.
“This a disappointing and frankly unnecessary decision,” he said. “The British government is working with others in the world to bring peace to Gaza and we do now have a tentative ceasefire which we all hope will hold.”
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Warsi said: “Our position not to recognise Palestinian statehood at the UN in November 2012 placed us on the wrong side of history and is something I deeply regret not speaking out against at the time.”
The Tory peer said that, having now stood down, she wanted to “speak more freely” on the issue and her first demand after handing in her resignation letter was for the UK to introduce an arms embargo against Israel.
“It appals me that the British government continues to allow the sale of weapons to a country, Israel, that has killed almost 2,000 people, including hundreds of kids, in the past four weeks alone. The arms exports to Israel must stop.”
Warsi was known to have been unhappy with David Cameron’s failure to unequivocally condemn Israel’s incursion into Gaza or the mounting death toll.
On Monday, the prime minister’s spokesman refused to say if Israel was behaving disproportionately or doing enough to prevent civilian casualties.
Responding to the resignation, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister regrets that Baroness Warsi has decided to stand down and is grateful for the excellent work that she has done, both as a minister and in opposition.
“Our policy has always been consistently clear – the situation in Gaza is intolerable and we’ve urged both sides to agree to an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.”
Warsi became the first Muslim to sit in the cabinet when she was made Conservative party co-chair by Cameron after the 2010 general election. She was subsequently moved to the post of minister of state at the Foreign Office and minister for faith and communities in the prime minister’s 2012 reshuffle – a move widely regarded as a demotion.
Cameron is due to fly to Portugal on Tuesday morning to rejoin his family on holiday after attending first world war commemorations in the UK, France and Belgium.
Warsi has been increasingly critical of Israel’s behaviour. She recently tweeted: “Can people stop trying to justify the killing of children. Whatever our politics there can never be justification, surely only regret.”
There was a high-level campaign to remove Warsi before last month’s reshuffle, particularly after she appeared on ITV’s The Agenda and posed with a mock front page about the “Eton Mess” at the top of the government.
Warsi is known to be keeping a diary and there have been fears she will publish it before the election in an effort to expose the upper-class coterie in Cameron’s inner circle.
She was removed as Conservative party co-chair and then, in a battle with No 10, was given the title of senior Foreign Office minister.
Her opponents will claim her resignation on a matter of principle is a cynical act, but supporters will say Cameron’s position on Israel has been over-supportive, repeatedly blaming Hamas for the conflict and the breakdown of successive ceasefires. Ironically, Warsi’s decision to quit comes as a three-day ceasefire has been agreed, and both sides are due to enter talks in Cairo.
Her resignation also threatened to reveal disagreement within the Tory party over Israel.
The London mayor, Boris Johnson, responded to Warsi’s resignation by saying it was “very sad” when any government minister stood down.
“I think she will be back as soon as possible. My view as mayor of London is that it is not the function of the mayor to get deeply embroiled in this,” he said on LBC radio’s Ask Boris phone-in.
He added that events in Gaza were “utterly horrifying and unacceptable”, but said “there is no point in politicians getting in a bidding war about issuing the most frenzied denunciation of what is going on”.
Referring to the Israeli bombing, Johnson said: “I cannot for the life of me see why this is a sensible strategy. It is not my function to arbitrate or adjudicate in this matter – I am a passionate supporter of Israel. I cannot for the life of me see the purpose of this. It is disproportionate, ugly and tragic and will not do Israel any good in the long run.”
Lord Gummer, a former Conservative cabinet minister, tweeted that Warsi was a “thoroughly good minister. Real principle. Deserves commendation not ritual scorn”.
Other prominent Conservatives, such as the commentator Tim Montgomerie, pointed out that she had previously shown support for Hamas.
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said it was “no secret there are differences of opinions and emphases” in the government in relation to Gaza.
Speaking at an event on immigration, he said: “Sayeeda Warsi clearly feels very strongly about this and has explained it to the prime minister in her own words. I believe it is right for Britain to be unambiguous in our condemnation of Hamas’s indiscriminate firing of rockets but also very forceful and outspoken about Israel. The bombing of three UN schools is a complete outrage.”
Asked whether Cameron had been critical enough of Israel’s actions, Clegg said it was up to the prime minister to speak for himself.
“Clearly the prime minister and I take different views on this and we always have done. We have discussed this on numerous occasions over the last several years. I tend to take a very forthright view and I have long argued [that] the European Union, which is an economic giant in the region, acts like a bit of a pygmy. If the EU were to act with some courage it could have exercised greater influence on this terrible blood-raged conflict, instead of constantly sub-contracting international policy issues to the United States.”
Clegg made it clear he would not be following Warsi and resigning over the issue, saying he agreed with government’s position in favour of “peace rather than conflict and a ceasefire rather than violence”.
“There are differences of emphases about how forceful the government should be in seeking to bring the two sides together,” he said.
Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, said: “Most reasonably minded people across Britain will agree with the sentiments expressed by Baroness Warsi in her resignation statement today. It is a sad reflection of the prime minister’s misjudgment of the crisis in Gaza that this capable minister has felt the need to leave the government.
“Labour has consistently opposed the Israeli incursion into Gaza and has repeatedly urged the prime minister to speak up and to speak out against the horrific loss of life witnessed in recent weeks, but he has so far failed to do so.
“We welcome the decision by Israel to withdraw its forces, but both sides must now fully respect the ceasefire to prevent further suffering and loss of life.”
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